While traditionally sendoff gifts for students include cash, leftovers and clean laundry, pepper spray is becoming a rising trend.
When no-preference freshman Emily Snoek went home for Thanksgiving and told her parents that during her first three months of college she walked home alone almost every night, they were certain she needed pepper spray.
“I tried to convince them I was okay, but they really wanted me to have it so I came back with pepper spray from Thanksgiving,” Snoek said.
Snoek, a member of the co-ed campus a cappella singing group State of Fifths, walks home from rehearsal at the music building to her Yakeley-Gilchrist Hall dorm. She now walks with her hot pink pepper spray in her hand ready to use.
“I think they got a little worried about me when they heard I had been walking alone so much so now when I walk home when it’s dark, I carry it in my hand ready to use and it makes me feel safer,” she said.
Snoek says she gets questions about the pink plastic dispenser that hangs from her key chain often.
“People notice it and ask what it is. When I tell guys I have it they usually ask me if I’ve tested it out on anybody,” she said.
Unlike Snoek, Nishat Islam was motivated to buy pepper spray for herself as a safety precaution in response to the female attacks that occurred on campus in the fall.
“I heard earlier in the semester that one girl was attacked on just a Wednesday coming home from class. That was so random and it really made me think it can happen to anyone, so I wanted to be prepared if that was me,” she said.
Islam, also a no-preference freshman, had evening classes fall semester, which prompted her decision to invest in pepper spray. She now carries her pepper spray with her at all times and holds on to it whenever she walks alone at night.
“One night when I was walking home from my class a bunch of boys came out of the woods, and I held onto my pepper spray so tight. I was so glad I had it that night,” Islam said.
While neither student has used her pepper spray, both say it makes them feel safer just having it on them.
Will having pepper spray really keep you safe in the case of an attack? According to MSU Police Sgt. Paul Kuchek, using pepper spray when attacked may cause more harm than good, and carrying certain types of pepper spray could even be illegal. The amount that is allowed according to MSU ordinance, .05 oz., is very small compared to what law enforcement officials carry and will likely fail to completely incapacitate an attacker.
“I’ve been sprayed with it many times in my training and what I was sprayed with was much stronger and I was still able to defend myself through the pain, so it may not be effective,” Kuchek said.
While it may not be an effective tool to fend off attackers, pepper spray does effectively give female students peace of mind in unavoidable situations that may be potentially unsafe.
“It just makes me feel better knowing that even if you cant beat a male physically you have another method,” Islam said, “Even when girls are strong they still could be at a disadvantage since boys can at least try to beat up an attacker when girls wouldn’t be as likely to be able to.”
While pepper spray is evidently more prevalent among the female student population, male students may be more likely to experience physical violence. According to MSU sociology professor Stephanie Nawyn, men are more likely to be injured or to experience physical violence than women.
“There is a sense that women are more vulnerable and the assumption that men can protect themselves, since many women don’t have the experience with fighting that many men often get from a young age,” Nawyn said.
Nawyn, who specializes in sex and gender issues, explained that carrying pepper spray can be emasculating to men and although men experience more physical violence than women, women are more susceptible to sexual assaults.
“Pepper spray seems to be more about protection from sexual crimes, but since sexual crimes usually occur with people you know, carrying it around campus isn’t where women are most vulnerable,” she said. “It’s not if you have it with you on campus, it’s do you have it at the family reunion with the creepy uncle or in your home with your husband or boyfriend, and would you be brave enough to use it on someone you loved?”
Whether using pepper spray as protection from strangers on the ‘rape trail’ or from family members at a family reunion, confidence is crucial.
“I hope I never have to, but I hope I would be brave enough to use it if I did need to,” Islam said.
Although female students may never use it, simply having it on their key chains makes them feel more confident that they could fight back if attacked.
“If you get attacked your adrenaline will start going and having even a little bit of power from the pepper spray will make you a bit more likely to fight back or at least try,” Snoek said.
Fighting back in a rape or attack situation may seem natural for some women or be difficult for others, it may be worth the risk since retaliating could prevent the crime.
“For most rapists, you will stop them if you try to fight back,” Nawyn said.
While carrying pepper spray is not the only way to stay safe, it can provoke female confidence and empowerment.
“Women should do what they need to do to feel safe: Carry the pepper spray if it helps you know you’re worth it, but have the confidence to go with it too,” Nawyn said.
Though the benefits of carrying pepper spray include confidence and peace of mind, there are unfortunate disadvantages to using it on a perpetrator. In addition to not completely incapacitating the attacker, the use of the pepper spray could potentially increase their aggression, Kuchek says.
“If you spray someone you need to be prepared to defend yourself physically, because more than likely it will just tick off your attacker so they will come after you, but on the other hand if the attacker is unsure about the attack, it could make them give up,” he said.
Pepper spray in and of itself may not fend off attackers. Carriers should consider taking other proactive steps to prevent attacks.
“If it if makes you more confident, carry the pepper spray but also take a self defense class and stand up to a boyfriend in a bad relationship,” Nawyn said.
Pepper spray or not, female confidence goes a long way in promoting safety and preventing sexual crimes. For students like Snoek and Islam, that confidence comes from something hanging from the their keychain.
“You never know what can happen,” Snoek said, “I’d rather be the exception that gets away.”
Additional Safety Tips From MSU Police Sgt. Paul Kuchek:
1) Be aware of your surroundings: Make sure you are paying attention when you are walking, especially at night. Put away your phone and Ipod so you know what is going on around you.
2) Safety in Numbers: Try to get two or more people to walk with you, especially when it is dark.
3) Splurge or beg for a safe ride: Spend the extra dollar or two for public transportation and if you are in dire need to get out of a bad situation immediately call a friend you can count on to come pick you up.
4) Take the Scenic Route: Don’t take the short cuts around campus that are in remote places. At night take the long way, get some exercise and stay safe.
5) It Can Happen to Anyone, don’t Let it be you: It’s not just females that need to be careful, when males are walking across campus intoxicated, people know they can’t fight back and can take advantage of that.